Life is full of choices. Literally, on a micro (small, detailed) level, every part of our body is filled with mechanisms making choices. On a macro (large, top, conscious) level we continually make choices: what to do now or into the future, what to eat or abstain from, what to say or respond to. On every level of life we are constantly making choices. Every one of these decisions, whether at the micro or macro level, affect our health and well being. In essence, life is an ongoing state of choosing between alternatives. You could say death is when we arrive at the inability to make any more choices at any level.
As modern Christians we often look back at those who followed God in earlier times, starting with Abraham and going forward through the Reformation, and believe they were often better at making the spiritual choices than we are. They seem more spiritual, more tuned into God and committed to his call on their lives than we generally seem in ours.
When we look at modern Christians it is impossible to miss how much we are blessed beyond measure, both physically and spiritually. We generally have, even the poorest of us, food, shelter, and amenities that in the past only the rich and noble could afford. As Christians we have books and teachings that touch on every aspect of the Christian life, biblical study, theological training, and the nature of God and man. We have a plethora of churches and styles of worship to choose from. Yet, in many ways, we seem shallow compared to our earlier brethren.
Are we really? I am not so sure. Maybe in having fewer choices and living a simpler life they just appear to be more spiritual, since they had less to tempt them.
How are we to think about this then? Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the Colossians where he talks about the problem of denial, that in an effort to be more holy, we may choose to avoid many of the things of life that have the possibility to tempt us.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ…Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath…If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulationsï¿½ “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)ï¿½according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 2:8,16,20-23
Here is the issue as I see it. Limiting your choices (do not handle, taste, touch) does not make you any better, more spiritual, any holier. It may prevent you from committing actual sin, but only because the opportunity has been removed from your grasp. Deep in your soul you haven’t dealt with the issues that those removed choices represent. You may have the appearance of holiness but without its actuality.
For me, this is where Jesus’ statement on removing the offending item comes in.
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. Matthew 18:8-9
Paul and Jesus are not in conflict, but rather complementary. Paul is dealing with the nature of choice and holiness and how it is not the things themselves that are the problem, but we ourselves. So we should not fool ourselves into believing that because we have limited our choices in an effort to limit our sin we have become more holy, more spiritually strong and mature. We have not.
On the other hand, Jesus is dealing with life and death. If we are too weak to deal with a temptation, then it is better to cut off our access (hand, foot, eye) than fall and die. No truer words have ever been spoken. But in doing so, we should realize that we are maimed, not whole. We have lost much to prevent our loosing it all. While this could be an absolutely necessary trade, it is not the best choice, only the choice of last resort, like amputating a gangrenous limb to save one’s life.
The problem is, however, that while physically, an amputation completely removes the infection from us, spiritually, the problem is still there, we have just cut off easy exposure, giving us a chance to continue on. We have escaped, not solved the problem.
The error comes in believing that because of that surgery we are more spiritual, more holy, because of it. That is where Paul’s argument comes back into focus. While the decision to act so decisively is admirable and life-giving, it has not solved the underlying problem. It has not made us any more holy.
That brings me to today, to the current generation of Christians. We are bombarded with choices. The most common citizen today, lives in many ways like kings of old. Even the poor put most ancients to shame with what they have and what is available to them. While most of our past brethren struggled against a few possibilities that offered them pathways to sin and degradation, today we are all bombarded by the most alluring choices that touch every level of sensual expectation or emotional need. Couple that with the fact that technology is expanding the horizons on a daily basis.
In many ways, modern Christians face an infinitely harder environment in which to live out their Christian discipleship. So, while we can justifiably be hard on ourselves for our failings, for often blurring the line between being in the world and not of the world, we are considerably more battle-tested than those who came before us. In addition, when we succeed it is against such a flood of temptations that maybe we are not as shallow and weak as we once thought. As a result of our struggles, we have grown strong spiritual antibodies.
Just a few thoughts from beyond the rim…